By the early 1800’s, the British Empire had grown to be the largest empire in world history, controlling over 13 million square miles and ruling over a half billion people, including the jewel of the empire – India.
In India, a religious practice for some was to bathe in the sewage-filled Ganges River. As a result, they would contract a water-born disease called cholera.
When the British East India Company built railroads and sent steamboats up the rivers, individuals infected with cholera were able to travel quickly back to Europe, carrying cholera with them.
Called the disease of the 19th century, cholera spread by drinking unsanitary water.
The first truly global disease, cholera killed tens of millions in crowded cities in: England, Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary, China, Japan, Java, Korea, the Philippines, India, Bengal, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Arabia, and Africa.
In Russia alone, cholera killed over one million people. Even the famous composer, Tchaikovsky, died from cholera.
Immigrants infected with cholera carried it to America, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and the Pacific Coast.
In 1832, as the Asiatic Cholera outbreak gripped New York, Henry Clay asked for a Joint Resolution of Congress to request that President Jackson set:
“A Day of Public Humiliation, Prayer and Fasting to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity.”
By 1849, cholera killed 5,000 in New York, with a mass grave on Randall’s Island in the East River; 8,000 killed in Cincinnati; and 3,000 killed in New Orleans.
Spreading up the Mississippi, 5,000 were killed in St. Louis, about 6% of the city’s population, including Pierre Chouteau, Sr., one of the St. Louis’ prominent early settlers.
In Chicago, 3,500 died. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s infant son and former 11th U.S. President James K. Polk succumbed to it. Ohio postponed its first State Fair.
Cholera spread along the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest and the Mormon Trail to Utah.
It killed an estimated 12,000 on their way to the California Gold Rush. In total, an estimated 150,000 American died from cholera.
On July 3, 1849, President Zachary Taylor proclaimed a National Day of Fasting:
“At a season when the providence of God has manifested itself in the visitation of a fearful pestilence which is spreading itself throughout the land, it is fitting that a people whose reliance has ever been in His protection should humble themselves before His throne, and, while acknowledging past transgressions, ask a continuance of the Divine mercy.
It is therefore earnestly recommended that the first Friday in August be observed throughout the United States as a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer…
It is recommended to persons of all religious denominations to abstain as far as practical from secular occupations and to assemble in their respective places of public worship, to acknowledge the Infinite Goodness which has watched over our existence as a nation, and so long crowned us with manifold blessings, and to implore the Almighty in His own good time to stay the destroying hand which is now lifted up against us.”
New Jersey Governor Daniel Haines’s proclamation was published in the Paterson Intelligencer, August 1, 1849:
“Whereas the President of the United States, inconsideration of the prevailing pestilence, has set…a Day of Fasting…and whereas I believe that the people of this State recognize the obligations of a Christian nation publicly to acknowledge their dependence upon Almighty God…that abstaining from their worldly pursuits, they assemble…with humble confession of sin…and fervently…implore the Almighty Ruler of the Universe, to remove us from the scourge…and speedily…restore to us the inestimable blessing of health.”
Mayor John Howard of Dayton, Ohio, proclaimed a Day of Fasting, ordered all stores to close, and hundreds of citizens knelt openly in the streets and prayed.
Tim O’Neil wrote “A Look Back-Cholera Epidemic Hit a Peak Here in 1849” (STLToday.com):
“St. Louis was a fast-growing city of 75,000, with immigrants arriving by the steamboat-load. It also had no sewer system…More than 120 died of cholera in April 1849…The toll grew six-fold in May…reached 2,200 in July…in late July with a weekly toll of 640, seven times the city’s normal death rate…The worst death rates were in the slums on the north and south ends of present-day downtown, where bodies were buried in ditches…Cholera killed at least 6 percent of the city’s population…”
After President Taylor’s Proclamation of Fasting was observed August 3, 1849, Tim O’Neil wrote:
“The number of deaths dropped suddenly in August.”
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The Moral Liberal contributing editor, William J. Federer, is the bestselling author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion,” and numerous other books. A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet. Check out all of Bill’s books here.
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